Gulf of Mexico 2010 - Large Marine Life

Beginning in July and through September, 2010, we supported scientists who were studying the populations and health of a variety of larger marine life throughout the Gulf, with special interest in the migrating giant whale sharks.  To find these magnificent creatures, we sometimes flew for six to eight hours per day, on pre-planned grid patterns covering the areas of the ocean where they have been seen in previous years at these particular times.  Some days we used two planes with spotters, and one to two boats with scientists and divers ready to go in and attach GPS tags to the animals.  Flying of course was second nature and our plane became an extension of our eyes.  What was not initially second nature but became so was the ability of our eyes to pick up the slightest motion of a fin or shadow of an animal moving beneath the surface.  Our brains learned to filter out wave chop and cloud shadows unconsciously, and our eyes locked into a slow scanning pattern.  After many days and weeks of this, our brains felt like we were seabirds and that we could find dinner easily if we had to!

Later in the summer (late August and early September), the whale sharks had moved from south of Louisiana (Ewing Bank area) eastward to an area about 80 miles south of Gulf Shores, Alabama.  The way we almost always could find them this time of year was in mid- to late afternoon, when we would see shadows on the ocean surface that were actually changes in the surface tension due to 'bait balls' -- actual feeding frenzies where tuna, smaller sharks, and almost always at least one, sometimes two, whale sharks were feeding on smaller fish.  Even 80 miles out, there were also pelicans diving into the fray.  The whale sharks were usually 'vertical feeding', and we have some amazing photographs looking right into their mouths.  And series' of photos where pelicans would dive right into the whale shark's mouth and pull fish from it!  We were flying very close to all of this excitement for photos and then kept a more respectful distance (a few hundred feet at least) while we guided the boats and divers to them.  The photos will give you an idea of these exciting times!

You'll see photos of a lone sperm whale we followed for a while.  And various other smaller sharks -- hammerhead (easy to identify), and what we think were tiger or mako.  Curiously, in bait balls where there one or two smaller sharks, we saw no whale sharks, and vice-versa.  

You'll also see photos of our favorite old friends, the sea turtles.  We got great close-ups of some leatherbacks and green turtles.  Generally, it was important to keep a good distance from the turtles and watch where our shadow hit, for they tended to be far more shy of this giant bird overhead (our plane).  

Finally, you'll see here some photographs we and our scientist passengers considered some of the best sargassum mats and weed lines we saw in the Gulf last summer.  None of it, within about 75 miles of the Macondo well) looked very healthy.  So we've included here some photos of fine healthy sargassum, taken before the spill in the area of Ewing Bank.  You'll also see in those photos some turtles living in the sargassum, and you'll see a two-day-old bluefin tuna and a two-day-old billfish.  The Gulf is, after all, the childhood home for those awesome fish.  Maybe not so much in 2010; time will tell.

One other exciting observation that we unfortunately did not get on film occurred Aug 22, while we were searching for whale sharks southeast of the Ewing Bank area (about 70 miles south of Venice, LA) was a pod of seven Orcas!  Yes, killer whales in the Gulf of Mexico!  We were incredulous and stayed with them for a good ten minutes, flying low and craning our necks and eyes.  On all subsequent flights we made sure to bring along high-quality cameras and photographers, as we really regretted not having this sight on film.

Enjoy these wonderful photos!  And share our excitement vicariously.
Oh!  By the way, the scientists managed to put GPS tags on several whale sharks in the August-September spottings, and they monitored them carefully for many months afterward.  We'll be heading out there again in early June to look for these gentle giants again!